Internet of Things for the Built Environment

Written by LetsBuild

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The Internet of Things”, for those who don’t know, refers to the vast amount of data available on the internet these days, and the huge number of devices around which are able to get onto the internet. The figures are a bit vague but there are probably over 4 billion “gadgets” today, going up to an estimated 10 billion by 2020! Come to think of it, there are 8 in our house alone!

As far as the built environment is concerned, the Internet of Things involves the connectivity of physical objects through either wired or wireless networks. In a home the one receiving much TV advertising at the moment is the central heating system. This can be controlled whilst you are away using the proper “gadget”. Another is the ability to switch lights on and off and to open and close curtains to fool would-be burglars while you’re away on holiday.

My wife discovered a new one last week! She now has the ability to control the TV in our lounge while we holiday in sunny Spain using her smart phone! I haven’t had the heart to tell her that won’t happen! Being a cautious kind of person, the plug will be removed and the socket switched off!

In a commercial building there can be a Building Management System (BMS) which not only explores things it is supposed to such as sunlight, lighting levels and temperatures, but also anticipate the occupants’ preferences and adjust to suite. The idea of this, primarily, is to save energy costs from electricity usage.

Systems are getting more complicated to match the advance of science and technology. This means there have to be closer manufacturing tolerances which, naturally, push up purchase prices. There also seems that there can be conflicts of interest when BMS’s are running the building. One of the large manufacturers of lifts/elevators has, in its product range, “smart” elevators. These are designed to save on the electric bill by queuing passengers so it is pretty well full and thus saves in trips up and down. Whoever designed the building and specified these elevators seems to have lost track of the fact that employees’ time costs more money than the electricity!

Can a BMS be considered such a wonderful thing, though? I fitted out a 5-storey office block that had 750 employees in it. That had a BMS that controlled the HVAC systems. Before I go any further let me say that this wasn’t anything to do with us! It had been specified by the Client and they had appointed their own contractors to install it. It was the height of winter and one of those with a few continuous days of sub-zero temperatures. The BMS thingy packed up and took 3 days for them to get it going again! The Client bought up every electric heater in the County to keep their people at “working temperature”. We had to knock out some of the windows, ones which wouldn’t create drafts in the working areas, to allow a through flow of fresh air and keep oxygen levels up.

Another problem I had on a commercial job was working on a new-build Internet Bank office. The entry doors were very nice glass ones which slide apart as people approached. The glass was armoured glass and, yes, they could be sealed from an emergency button inside the office. A very expensive luxury! The office had only been occupied by the Client’s people for about a week when the doors stopped working. Not even the manufacturer could sort them out; was it the mechanics of the doors or the sensors that opened and closed them? In the end we had to cut the damned things out of the masonry wall and new replacements were fitted. How long they worked properly I’ve no idea. We were off site very soon after that.

Our infrastructure; roads. Road safety is, without a doubt, a laudable concern. On our motorways we have traffic control signs stuck up at pretty regular intervals. I have to admit that I don’t knowif these are actually run by an internet connection or by cable; whichever, the principle applies. The signs suddenly reduce the speed limit from 70 mph to 40. The traffic slows down – to 20mph, if we’re lucky! Often it comes to a grinding halt with long tailbacks building up! Another thing I’ve noticed relates to traffic lights at junctions. If the traffic lights have packed up the traffic usually flows a lot more freely! The other traffic light thing that gets me is at pedestrian crossings. Someone walks up and presses the button before they look to see if there are any approaching vehicles. They look and there aren’t so they cross the road. Once they are on the other side the lights turn red and traffic stops! Thinking about it traffic at junctions seems to flow best when there is a Bobby on point duty!

Now there is one “connectivity” setup in our house, cum my home office, that I would hate to be without; my Wi-Fi modem router! Far better than when I used to have wires traipsing all around the place. The Wi-Fi is so good that I am still connected to it, via my smart phone, when I’m something like 200 yards away out walking the dog on the Green which is in front of us. But even here there has been a down-side. I have had to pay out for three different Modem Routers and four wireless adaptors for my desktop PC.

There are a couple more “connectivity” set-ups I can immediately think of that we have. The first is a dead simple doorbell! One push-button outside the front door and three ringing things inside so we can hear it wherever we are. The whole lot has been replaced 3 times in the last decade because the system stopped working. The lot had to be replaced because there was no way of identifying the defective bit! The other is the control in the lounge for the central heating boiler which is in the airing cupboard upstairs. When the central heating has packed up it is call the Heating Engineer out time! Four times he has had to replace the control in the lounge. Not a cheap deal!

We also have an example of “connectivity” outside our house; a street light. This has a sensor which decides when it goes on and off. Those in the area seem to choose different times, but that is liveable with as they do actually light up. One bust, though. The eventual answer, it seems, was total replacement. That took various gangs of men five days to do!

We’ve had a look at some examples of the “Internet of Things” for the built environment. Without doubt there will be many, many more as technology advances. They will make life simpler for all of us. However we must be aware of the down-side to this. To incorporate them pushes up the cost of building the built environment, and that can be a pretty steep price increase. The other down-side is maintenance costs which can be horrific and the disruption while they are out of order can be chaotic.

Can technology and manufacturing standards make everything more reliable? If they do, in the future, will we see the costs of installation sky-rocket? We will see adequate measures taken to avoid chaos when the systems malfunction?